Resisting the dark side: A primer on dark pattern UX

By Dustin Cartwright Posted Nov. 21, 2013 Reading time: 5 minutes

User Experience has come a long way in the last decade, especially in the world of web design. Now more than ever, people are more focused on making sure the user not only has it easy, but also enjoys the product or service that they’re using.

But whilst most people are working to form a more usable and enjoyable web for the user; some work to deceive the user and trick them with UX techniques known as Dark Patterns.


What is a Dark Pattern?

Dark Patterns are user interfaces or user experience techniques designed precisely to trick people. These techniques could be relatively harmless and only leave an unnerving feeling of annoyance with the user. Others though, could cost the user much more financially or even professionally. Though they are not to be confused with Anti-Patterns, which are simply common practices that result in a bad UX (and are not intentionally deceptive).

Essentially the main goal of a Dark Pattern is to trick the user into buying or doing something they would not otherwise. Nielsen Norman Group has a very popular post on design heuristics. Take any of these points and you can generally find a flip side that can be abused as well. For instance:

Consistency and standards: Users should not have to wonder whether different words, situations, or actions mean the same thing. Follow platform conventions.

Following this heuristic it’s common practice within software to keep the “OK” and “cancel” buttons consistent. To do otherwise, could cause confusion or annoyance — which is a bad UX. Replacing the “OK” button occasionally with a “Buy 1000 more appbucks for $0.99” button would be considered a Dark Pattern.

So as you can see, most good user experience practices also have an inverted Dark Pattern as well. While a good UX/UI is there to make things as clear and intuitive as possible, Dark Patterns seek to use confusing logic and double negatives to increase user conversions.


Dark Patterns in marketing

The world of marketing and design tend to butt heads occasionally. One side wants to up-sell the user, and the other wants to let the user do their own thing. Some websites use dark patterns in their marketing strategy, which seeks to drive conversions at the user’s expense; often without their knowledge. These tactics tend to create a surge in subscriptions or add-on product purchases, and while initially successful, they are notoriously short-sighted practices. This type of marketing results in a large one-time customer user base, but an extremely small repeat customer user base. Once the user is aware they were taken advantage of, the service or product is a constant reminder of that bad user experience, and what it cost them.

Marketing can easily fall into such practices to meet conversion goals and drive sales or subscriptions. But thankfully, it’s far more profitable to maintain a good brand image and present the option to up-sell should the user so desire. Amazon is a high profile example of this with their add-on item program and largely successful recommended items sections. They don’t use the Sneak into Basket Dark Pattern and add items into a user’s cart; they do however, sometimes advertise the benefits of adding in such items (like free shipping).


Personal cost of Dark Patterns

The majority of Dark Patterns result in a monetary loss or customer dissatisfaction. While those are certainly important, there is a niche area in the Dark Pattern library which isn’t commonly discussed.

When a website or service uses these patterns at a direct professional cost to the user or customer, people tend to get upset very quickly. With the advent of blogging and social media, everyone now has their own sort of “brand” online. Essentially, people are marketing themselves on social media rather than (or in addition to) products.

In October, Comic Con Attendees were forcefully opted in to tweet promotionally about the event upon entering. During online registration for badges, users could opt to connect social media accounts — something highly useful to promote at such events. Only in this case, users weren’t informed their accounts would be hijacked to tweet without permission. Thankfully, NYCC promptly turned off the automatic opt-in “feature” and later issued a full apology. Though all was well in the end, I somehow doubt many users will preemptively attach their social media accounts to their badges in the future.


Distrust, deception, and anguish

Few companies can say that their user base means little or nothing to them. Those that do are generally in a unique niche market or following alternative business practices. Following that logic, it’s easy to draw the conclusion that a happy and trustful user base is the best asset for a business. So much so in fact, App.net literally drew their business model from the dissatisfaction of Twitter’s users. The following is a quote from App.net’s about page:

Everything that you put into App.net is yours. That means we’ll never sell your posts, private messages, photos, files, feed, clicks, or anything else to advertisers. You’ll always be able to easily back-up, export, or delete all of your data.

Generally speaking, when a website uses Dark Patterns to drive their conversion goals, users get upset and migrate to a more ethical and honest competitor — or they create one.


Using Dark Patterns for better UX

You can use Jakob Nielsen’s Heuristics to create good UX patterns for your users. But you can also look at those patterns as heuristics to create a better end goal for yourself as well.

A one-size fits all approach to UX design is always easier… But creating intrinsic patterns specific to your service or website can result in UX gains for the user, and conversions for you. In the end, a pattern that results in a gain for both the user and the service or website is the goal.

Psychology is the science that these patterns — good and bad — are based upon. Understanding your user and their goals on your website or service is paramount to creating a positive outcome for both parties. In learning what the user is visiting for, and why, you can use that information to increase conversions and offer more relevant, valuable information to the user. Doing so will not only increase your user base’s happiness with your product, but also present the opportunity for you to use far more appropriate ways to increase conversions naturally.


Putting yourself in a user’s shoes

When thinking about good or bad UX, it’s helpful to step away and place yourself in your user’s shoes. Throw your browser in incognito mode, or log out and use your website as a newbie for a while. You may suddenly start to see many areas where your users could become frustrated.

A/B testing is a common solution, where two versions of a website are presented to different test groups to determine which drives conversions better. Though you should be wary of how you go about A/B testing — make sure to keep a sharp eye on how your users react emotionally to using your website as well. Testing purely with the goal of converting can easily lead you down a dark path to the destruction of your website or service. It’s important to have the end goal of a happy user, but it’s also just as important to insure the road to that goal isn’t a hard one.


Some final thoughts

Whilst using Dark Patterns may result in initial success, I can personally promise you they aren’t a sustainable business pattern.

In every case that a major website has resulted to them, users have migrated away or created their own competition eventually. Sometimes this happens nearly overnight, and sometimes it’s a slow fading out into oblivion.

Either way, it never pays to use Dark Patterns at the expense of your customers or users.


Have you considered dark pattern UX? What dark practices are least palatable to you? Let us know in the comments.

Featured image/thumbnail, dark side image via FiDalwood